ORONO, Maine — State law enforcement officials, social workers and legal professionals got a glimpse into the dynamics of finding and helping victims of sex trafficking at a workshop Tuesday on combating the crime in Maine.
The Zonta Club of Bangor, a chapter of Zonta International, an organization dedicated to advancing the status of women worldwide, organized the workshop, along with the New England Coalition Against Trafficking. The nearly daylong event, which drew about 60 audience members, focused on identifying victims of sex trafficking and how to encourage them to come forward, as well as the difficulties that hinder efforts to help them.
Sex trafficking is defined by the U.S. State Department as “when a person is coerced, forced or deceived into prostitution, or maintained in prostitution through coercion.”
Richard Mears, an associate professor of justice studies at the University of Maine in Augusta and one of the workshop’s guest speakers, said Maine officials were unaware of human trafficking in the state before about six years ago. There have been no documented cases of human trafficking in Maine, according to Mears, but there have been cases in which police suspected the crime had occurred. He cited one example of a massage parlor in Lisbon Falls where the city’s police officers found Koreans working who they suspected were victims for various reasons, including the fact there are so few Koreans in Maine.
“They found out that there were people coming up here from as far away as New Hampshire to get a massage,” Mears said. “Does that tell you that there’s a problem?”
Bangor Daily News archives from 2004 show that the owner of the Lisbon massage parlor also owned the Asian Therapy Center on Hammond Street in Bangor. The owner and another woman eventually were charged with prostitution and promotion of prostitution.
In the summer of 2005, according to another BDN item, a Hartland man was convicted of smuggling two teenage girls from Malaysia across the Canadian border into Maine. During sentencing, the federal judge in that case voiced his suspicion that the case may have involved human trafficking.
Mears, formerly the deputy police chief for Brunswick, said sex trafficking is one of the most difficult crimes to investigate because victims are conditioned to fear police and often are told by their victimizers that their family will be harmed if they speak truthfully. Many victims feel emotional attachments to their victimizers or may be from a foreign culture and unaware human trafficking is a crime in the United States.
According to Nola Theiss, executive director of the Zonta Club, 1.8 million children are forced into the sex trade each year worldwide. People in Haiti can buy Haitian children for $150, she said. Risk factors such as a person’s age, poverty and a lack of support, among others, all contribute to the possibility of a person being sold into the sex trade.
Victims often don’t report their abuse, according to Destie Hohman Sprague, program coordinator for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Sprague, another of Tuesday’s guest speakers, said physical restraints, threats of violence, debt bondage and loyalty attachments contribute to victims’ unwillingness to come forward.
Signs of sex trafficking include commercial sex by minors, a lack of possessions, little to no knowledge of a community’s location, a lack of control of victims’ own identification, signs of abuse and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, according to Sprague.
In 2008, the U.S. government budgeted $23 million to fight human trafficking, according to the State Department, but most federal money targeting the sex trade goes to help foreign rather than domestic victims, according to Theiss.
“It just hit us that this is something in Maine that people are not aware of,” Theiss said.
People certified as sex trade victims can receive the same federal benefits as those given to refugees, according to Arian Giantris, director of Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigrant Services.
Zonta International has worked to curb human trafficking worldwide and within the state, but Tuesday’s workshop was the 80-year-old Bangor club’s first big project in the area. The Maine Community Policing Institute held a similar conference in 2005 in Augusta.
The Zonta Club held the workshop, which included other speakers throughout the day, at the Black Bear Inn. The organization supports itself through fundraising.
“People say [human trafficking] doesn’t happen in Maine,” Giantris said, but “clearly Maine is not a utopia. We know it’s happening here, but we don’t have the data” to prove it.
Maine passed a law in April 2008 making human trafficking a state crime.
Dylan Riley is a journalism student at the University of Maine.